Roam If You Want To

Frances McDormand starts in ‘Nomadland,’ a remarkable drama about modern-day itinerant workers

It’s tempting to call ‘Nomadland’ a road movie, but that would presume a destination of sorts, or at least a goal. Chloé Zhao’s remarkable drama about modern-day itinerant workers has a soulful strength that’s rooted much more in perseverance than accomplishment. And staying alive shouldn’t be looked at as an accomplishment any more than breathing. It should be a given. It should be a right—especially in any society which prides itself on charity as much as industry.

NOMADLAND ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Written by: Chloé Zhao, based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells
Running time: 108 min

“I need work,” says Fern (Frances McDormand). “I like work.” She’s not looking for a handout, even though she’s living in a van now that the newly widowed and economically winnowed singleton has lost her husband and her house. She bumps into an acquaintance who’s clearly embarrassed for her, but Fern won’t be judged. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” she tells her. Not the same thing.”

It’s also tempting to call this elliptical meditation a political movie, or even a liberal screed. But ‘Nomadland’ doesn’t technically take place in the MAGAverse. It begins just after the 2011 real-life closing of a gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, a death knell that turned a company town—Fern’s town—into a ghost town. The 2008 financial crisis happened under a Republican administration, but the roots of that date back to banking policies a Democratic administration set in motion in the ’90s. And Nomadland takes place squarely in the middle of the Obama era. In fact, these American nomads—mostly white, mostly over fifty and AARP-eligible—take pride in their rugged self-reliance, relentless optimism, and lack of self-pity despite their lifestyle’s harrowing hand-to-mouth fragility. You can imagine more than a few of them voting for Trump.

Fern and her fellow “workampers” are migrants, signing up for 12-hour shifts at Amazon warehouses during the Christmas season—Amazon calls them their CamperForce and pays for their R.V. park fees, in lieu of benefits or any sense of job security. Then they scatter all over the west, from Nebraska to California, finding other backbreaking gigs like sorting produce at a beet factory or cleaning toilets at national campgrounds. Many of them congregate every year at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzite, Arizona. They barter and gossip, giving auto advice and sharing tips on the best type of buckets to use for taking shits. Talk about not having a pot to piss in. “We workhorses have to take care of each other,” says Bob Wells, a silver-haired road-warrior patriarch and one of the authentic nomads who populate Zhao’s heavily non-professional cast.

Like most great movies, Nomadland subverts expectations and makes viewers reshuffle the judgmental calculus in their heads. At times, Fern is a maddening riddle: her broken engine requires a humbling call to borrow money from her sister. Of course her sister gives her the cash, and also invites Fern to live with her and her family. But Fern clearly bristles at the notion, just as much as she bristles making backyard small talk with her sister’s neighbors. She’s never felt comfortable conforming.

Frances McDormand and David Straithairn in ‘Nomadland,’ directed by Chloé Zhao.

A fellow van dweller named David (David Strathairn) keeps bumping into her at various times. During one extended stay, they both have jobs at the cavernous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota. They clearly click, and he’s open to romance. There’s a future together if she wants it. But what does Fern want, exactly? ‘Nomadland’ raises more questions than it answers, and Zhao doesn’t necessarily seem interested in solutions anyway. She wants to study a state of mind, specifically a sense of freedom. And dignity.

McDormand delivers her singular brand of flinty guile, but the most impressive aspect of her performance here is the understatement. She knows that the real stars of this film are the real people who play themselves. Linda May and Charlene Swankie play fellow “wheel estate” travelers Linda and Swankie because that’s who they really are. And when McDormand shares the screen with them, in their conversations and in their quiet moments together, her deference is palpable and touching and apt. What’s even more remarkable is how much people like Linda and Charlene exude a natural magnetism. Maybe it reflects how much they really feel liberated by and at peace with their life’s decisions, which enriches this already fecund film even more.

What Zhao most obviously depicts, as does Jessica Bruder in the book that inspired the film, is the human collateral damage of systemic structural rifts in a capitalistic society that’s not just heartless but careless and frankly clueless. But the profoundly empathetic ‘Nomadland’ isn’t offering a quick-fix cure-all for what was once called the Great Society. Think of it more as palliative care. Or even hospice.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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